Selina Leem: Farewell to legendary climate advocate Papa Tony deBrum

On August 22 the climate change movement lost one of its fiercest advocates. Tony deBrum, former Marshall Islands foreign minister and climate ambassador, passed away aged 72. Considered a hero by many in his homeland, deBrum was a strong, committed voice in the campaign for greater protections for small island nations in the face of environmental change, and a crucial proponent of the historic Paris Agreement.

We asked Impolitikal contributor Selina Leem to reflect on her close bond with ‘Papa Tony’, and the impact of his passing.


Iakwe Papa Tony,

Thank you! The first time we met, you bestowed unto me such a bright smile, it surprised me a little bit. Suddenly I was engulfed in a warm, big hug as a boasting laugh escaped from you, causing tremors in your protruding belly and shoulders. I thought of my dear grandfather and feeling his protruding belly every time I hugged him.

“Ahhhh lijibubu ah,” was what you said. I teared a little. You gifted me with a beautiful moment there.

Fast-forward, I was your shadow at COP21. I watched, listened, observed and learnt from you. It was clear to me the first day I was there how much you stood out and differed from all the other delegates. Not with your presence but with your telling. You were a storyteller in there. That was the greatest difference. You did not recite or drone on the usual political speech. No, you told a story. Our legends. Our ways. Our children. I thought, what a courageous thing to do. You made it personal. You became vulnerable. And what a hard thing that is to do.

I look at the calendar and it has been almost two weeks since your passing. I hope you are doing well. You looked handsome and sharp as always the last I saw you. Your grip ever so strong was what I thought of as I smiled with tears making their course down my cheeks as I looked at you in your coffin. I suddenly remembered you in the hospital, on your bed. I kept smiling stupidly. I did not know how to put on a serious face because I have always smiled when I was in your presence. I thought to be your sun during that half an hour I came to visit you. Your hand reaching out for mine. What a beautiful grip it was.

“You told a story. Our legends. Our ways. Our children. You made it personal. You became vulnerable.”

Making my smile go wider. Except my mouth seemed to have lost its function. It is not that I was at a loss for words. It was the opposite. I was abundant with words. Unsaid things. Making me incoherent and unable to formulate a statement, a response. If it was not for Thom, I would just have been standing there, smiling, overwhelmed, unable to speak but stare. Thanks to his questions, snapping me out of my dazed smile. We grieve but we also remain strong. There is so much to do, and your entire life’s work we vow to continue and succeed. It is not the time to stop and we feel your spirit and strength.

It is there as we gather around once again for sakau at your home. It is there as the guitar plays and lullabies are echoed into the silent wind of the night. Papa Tony, I hope you went knowing how loved you were. How blessed you were. You have accomplished so much for your country, your family and yourself. We learnt and are still learning so much from you. Be at peace. For we will continue your work.

With love,



Selina Neirok Leem is a small island girl with big dreams from the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Read more by Selina.